Happy Birthday Charles Bronson!: THE STONE KILLER (Columbia 1973)

Charles Buchinsky was born November 3, 1921 in the coal-country town of Ehrenfield, PA to a Lithuanian immigrant father and second-generation mother. He didn’t learn to speak English until he was a teen, and joined the Air Force at age 23, serving honorably in WWII. Returning home, young Charles was bitten by the acting bug and made his way to Hollywood, changing his last name to ‘Bronson’ in the early fifties. Charles Bronson spent decades toiling in supporting parts before becoming a name-above-the-title star in Europe.

By the 1970’s, Bronson had begun his long run as an action star. THE STONE KILLER capitalizes on the popularity of Cop and Mafia movies of the era, with Our Man Bronson as Lou Torrey, a Dirty Harry-type who shoots first and asks questions later. After he kills a 17-year-old gunman in the pre-credits opening, Torrey is raked over the coals by the New York City press, and decides to accept a job with the LAPD. Two years pass, and we find Torrey making a heroin bust on a crook named Armitage, who he knows from the past. Armitage has a murder warrant out for his arrest in NYC, and Torrey has to escort him back to The Big Apple. The crook is gunned down at the airport, and a string of gangland-related killings occurs, as Torrey tries to connect the dots, leading him to a vengeful Mafia Don, a crew of Vietnam Vet mercenaries, violence, shootings, bloodshed, car crashes, and other fun stuff!

If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best, and THE STONE KILLER is loaded with echoes of DIRTY HARRY and THE GODFATHER. Bronson’s at his best as the tough cop Torrey, whether he’s beating up a perp or spouting a quick quip (“The FBI can piss in its collective ear” is my favorite Bronsonism here!). There are a couple of in-jokes referencing Bronson’s coal-country roots, and I particularly enjoyed the amusingly weird scene set at an Ashram, where Bronson interrogates hippie chick Kelly Miles – it seems so out-of-place among all the carnage! This was his third film with director Michael Winner (CHATO’S LAND, THE MECHANIC ), and the duo’s DEATH WISH was looming on the horizon, which put Bronson over the top as an action star for good.

He’s surrounded by a top-notch cast of character actors. Oscar winner Martin Balsam  plays Mafia chieftain Vescari, complete with Sicilian accent, out to settle an old score. Norman Fell plays Bronson’s boss Daniels (and Fell’s future THREE’S COMPANY costar John Ritter is a rookie cop!). Ralph Waite is the racist cop Mathews, David Sheiner’s Bronson’s old partner Guido, Stuart Margolin the mercenary Lawrence, and veteran Walter Burke stands out as a grass-dealing informant. Other Familiar Faces include Frank Campanella , Jack Colvin (THE INCREDIBLE HULK’s McGee), Robert Emhardt , Hoke Howell, Byron Morrow, Christina Raines, Angelo Rossitto , Alfred Ryder, and Charles Tyner .

THE STONE KILLER certainly fills the bill for Charles Bronson Action Flick junkies out there – and yes, I’m one of them! It’s got all the elements, including the obligatory car chase (only Charlie’s chasing down a suspect on a Honda – another good scene!), and moves swiftly thanks to Winner’s direction and Roy Budd’s pulse-pounding score. Happy birthday Mr. Bronson – we miss you!!


That’s Blaxploitation! 7: TROUBLE MAN (20th Century-Fox 1972)

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One of the earliest Blaxploitaion films is TROUBLE MAN, a 1972 entry about Mr T…

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…no, not THAT Mr. T! THIS Mr. T…

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Thank you! This Mr. T is played by Robert Hooks, a tough talking private eye who drives a big-ass Lincoln Continental and “fixes troubles” on the mean streets of L.A. T gets hired by gangsters Chalky Price and Pete Cockrell to protect their crap games, which are getting ripped off by masked gunmen. Things go awry when Chalky shoots one of the heisters, a dude named Abby who works for rival gangster “Big”. Abby’s body is dumped and word is on the streets T did the killing. Police Capt. Joe Marx puts the heat on T, as does “Big”, so T arranges a late night summit between “Big”, Chalky, and Pete at Jimmy’s Pool Hall .  “Big” arrives, but before Chalky and Pete do, some cops raid the joint. These cops aren’t what they seem, and gun down “Big”. T is framed again, and figures out the two hoods have set him up, so he goes out for revenge in a violent and bloody climax.

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TROUBLE MAN is noted for its score by Motown legend Marvin Gaye and not much else. It didn’t do well at the box office, but it’s not as bad as some say.”Routine” would be a good word to describe it. Robert Hooks was primarily a stage actor who’d broken the color barrier as the first black to star in a weekly TV dramatic series, N.Y.P.D (Bill Cosby in I SPY notwithstanding, which had as much comedy as drama). The cast is full of seasoned pros like Paul Winfield (SOUNDER, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN), Ralph Waite (THE WALTONS), Julius Harris (LIVE AND LET DIE), William Smithers (PAPILLION, DALLAS), Paula Kelly (SOYLENT GREEN ), and Bill Henderson, a jazz singer who acted in dozens of films and TV episodes. Others in the cast are Gordon Jump (WKRP IN CINCINNATI), Nathaniel Taylor (Rollo in SANFORD & SON), real-life pool shark Texas Blood, and former welterweight champion Danny “Little Red” Lopez.

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The problem lies in John D.F. Black’s script, which “borrows” heavily from his script for SHAFT, transplanting the character to the West Coast. Some of the dialogue is pretty lame: “You fuckin’ A-right I’m right!”, declares T at one point (Although my favorite line is when one of the henchmen says things went “like sippin’ whiskey… smooth as fuckin’ silk”).Black did much better work on the original STAR TREK series. The direction by HOGAN’S HEROES actor Ivan Dixon is pedestrian at best, only coming to life at the movie’s bloody climax. I think 20th Century-Fox had high hopes for TROUBLE MAN, but when it tanked at the box office no sequels were made.

TROUBLE MAN is just okay, but could’ve been much better with more inspired direction and a stronger script. It’s just kind of mediocre; take out the swearing and the blood, and you’ve got your basic TV detective show. Maybe that’s the route they should’ve taken, and turned it into a weekly series. As it stands, it’s one of the lesser entries in the Blaxploitation catalogue.